Last Monday (June 26) was the twentieth anniversary of J. K. Rowling’s publication of her first Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ). The seven volumes that now comprise the Harry Potter series have had a profound global impact (the books–translated into 79 languages–have sold more than 450 million copies). No other books have so rekindled the love of reading among American children and adolescents–not to mention a significant number of adults. In an era when reading seemed to be an all but antiquated pastime, the books prompted children to wait in line (sometimes iterminably) for the latest installment of Harry Potter’s exploits; equally remarkable, virtually none of the Hogwarts fans could postpone (much less forgo) reading until the inevitable movie version appeared (the films have had an equal, though different, influence on popular culture). With all the Potter books now in print, today’s children have become binge readers, while–perhaps sadly–an increasing number of adults have become binge watchers (a far more passive activity, regardless of what one watches, which includes the Harry Potter films).
That a new generation is discovering the joys of reading books might also combat the consequences of reading screens. Mounting research suggests that reliance on digital reading undermines and/or fails to promote what scholars call “deep reading” (the term was coined by Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age ). This kind of reading (versus scrolling through lines of text on a phone, tablet, or desktop computer) is deliberative and purposeful–the reader focuses on gaining a full understanding of the text for both enlightenment and enjoyment. It sparks interior monologues that go beyond factual recapitulation (“What did Harry Potter do?) to embrace speculation (“Why did Harry Potter do that?) and even self-examination (“Would I have done what Harry Potter did?). These skills may well provide the foundation for empathy, compassion, and other aspects of social/emotional intelligence. (See Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain ; Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains ; and Daniel Willingham, The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads .
Related to deep reading is something that all good literature does: it poses moral dilemmas. From Hamlet to The Brothers Karamazov, from Charlotte’s Web to Beloved, readers encounter the chiaroscuro of moral choice–which, in turn, helps develop their capacity for moral reasoning. The eminent psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg believed that moral reasoning was the key to moral behavior, a powerful but admittedly controversial theory. (Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order: Sequence in the Development of Moral Thought,” Vita Humana 6 ). So–just maybe–reading about Harry Potter’s decision to choose good over evil might help children learn to do the same thing. And any book that can do that is worth celebrating.